Linchpin habits: Minimum effort for maximum results

A few weeks ago, I set a few goals for 2018, one of which was to run at least one mile every single day. Last week, that goal got derailed when I was diagnosed with pneumonia. The doctor ordered me not to run for at least ten days — perhaps longer.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that I'm doing well with my other goals. I'm eating more plants. I'm reading for pleasure. And my alcohol consumption is way down.

You see, I had started to worry about my drinking. Over the past few years, alcohol has become a larger and larger part of my life. At the start of the year, I resolved to drink fewer than 500 servings of alcohol in 2018, which averages to about 10 drinks a week. This seems like an awful lot to some people, but trust me: It's a sharp reduction. It's less than half what I drank in 2017.

So far, so good. Through 23 days, I've consumed 22 alcoholic beverages (including eleven days with zero drinks). That puts me on pace for 350 drinks in 2018.

How have I managed to make such a drastic shift to my drinking habits? In reality, I've made only one change: I've stopped drinking beer.

I didn't realize it when I made my vow to give up beer for ninety days, but drinking beer is — for me — a “linchpin habit”. Changing this linchpin habit has had a positive ripple effect throughout my entire life.

Beer taster platter in northern California

The Rise and Fall of a Linchpin Habit

When Kim and I left for our cross-country RV trip in March 2015, I was only an occasional beer drinker. But as we ate and drank our way across the country, beer became a hobby, a thing for us to explore and share together. By the end of the trip, I was drinking at least two beers a night — more when I was deliberately trying to drink beer.

Naturally, all of this alcohol had an impact on my life. I gained weight. My fitness faded. My mind became muddled. Plus, my pocketbook began to feel pinched.

Two or three or five times per week, either Kim or I (or both) would suggest heading to a local pub for beer and a pizza. Or beer and wings. Or beer and a sandwich. One of the reasons we moved from Portland to the suburbs last summer was to remove the temptation to dine out all of the time. The move made a difference, but we still found excuses to go out and drink beer. (Then we'd come home and drink some more!)

Big beers in Paris

When I was deciding what goals to set for 2018, I knew I wanted to drink less alcohol. But how was I going to make that happen? I enjoy a glass of wine with friends. And I truly love having a library of fine whisky. I don't want to give that stuff up. I just want to consume less alcohol, for drinking not to affect my life.

During the last week of the year, Kim and I visited our favorite pub four times. On the fourth time — on New Year's Eve — it dawned on me: I'd probably drink a lot less alcohol if I simply gave up the suds. So, that's what I decided to do: No beer until my birthday!

Changing that single linchpin habit has had exactly the effect I hoped it would. I've lost weight. My mind feels sharper than it has in a long time. Plus, Kim and I have had only one restaurant meal together in January.

For me, drinking beer was a linchpin habit. It tied together several other bad habits. Getting rid of beer has had a domino effect leading to improved quality of life all around. (The downside? No beer.)

Other Linchpin Habits

This isn't the first time I've noted remarkable changes can occur when I'm able to discover and change a linchpin habit.

  • When I was digging out of debt, I resolved not to go into bookstores or comic shops until my debt was eliminated. I still allowed myself to buy books and comics now and then. But I couldn't physically enter a store to do so. I couldn't shop for fun. As a result, my spending on books and comics plummeted.
  • Last year, I realized I was wasting too much time playing videogames, reading Reddit, and passively consuming the internet. When I thought about the problem, I noticed that most of my time was wasted while soaking in the bathtub. (TMI?) Instead of banning Hearthstone and /r/aww/ from my life, I simply stopped taking so many baths. My productivity improved right away.

Not all linchpin habits are bad, of course. In fact, most of the time I hear the concept discussed, it's in the context of creating positive habits that lead to other positive habits.

For instance, many people have told me that rising early has changed their lives. By waking up 60 to 90 minutes earlier than normal, they've been able to exercise, write (and sell) short stories, build a meditation practice, spend time with their family, and more. Rising early is the sort of linchpin habit that can help you make radical improvements to your life.

I know a number of folks here in Portland who have exchanged their car commute for a bike commute. Every one of them loves it, praising how much money it saves them, how much more relaxed they are, and so on. For the people I know, bike commuting becomes a positive linchpin habit.

Brothers drinking beer on Sunday morning

Minimum Effort for Maximum Results

Adding and/or removing linchpin habits can be a lot of fun because it's a way to achieve maximal results with minimal effort. You make what seems like one minor change, yet you obtain massive benefits.

There are only two real drawbacks that I can think of.

  • First, linchpin habits generally require removing something awesome from your life (like beer) or adding something unpleasant (like waking up at 4:30). Our natural tendency is to reject these sorts of changes because, before we make them, we can't see the positive repercussions that await us. Even when people tell us how excellent it is to have ninety minutes of quiet free time to start the day, we chafe at the idea of getting up when it's cold and dark outside.
  • Second, it can be tough to discern which habits are specifically linchpin habits. I knew that I wanted to drink less alcohol, but was drinking itself the linchpin habit? Was going out to eat the linchpin habit? Or was it something else? It took me a long time to realize that beer was the actual issue. (And I suspect I still wouldn't have realized it if we hadn't gone to our favorite pub four times during the last week of the year!) To identify linchpin habits can sometimes require a lot of deep thought — and perhaps some trial and error.

Here's something else I've learned about changing linchpin habits: The changes do not have to be permanent. Oftentimes, the habits you're changing aren't the actual issue. But by making the change, you're able to add (or remove) several other habits at the same time.

Take my ban on bookstores and comic shops, for instance. That ban only existed until I got out of debt and lost the urge to spend. It took two or three years, but eventually I reached a place where I knew that I could go into a bookstore and not buy a book. Now, a decade later, that change has stuck.

Sometimes when you change a linchpin habit, you'll decide you want to keep that change for good. Sometimes you won't. (I think my prohibition against beer will only last until my target date at the end of March, for instance.) The important thing is to live with the change for a period of time, and to let it help you become more mindful and aware of how small actions can have big impacts on your life.

Tasting beer in Sun Valley, Idaho

More about...Uncategorized

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
18 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Chris
Chris
2 years ago

Appreciate your honesty about this. Thoughtful article, I agree with what you said about mindfulness. I have been taking a class to learn about healthy eating and we spent a week on vacation last week. I went with the mindset that I was going to try to keep to the things I am learning the best I can. It was not easy, b/c we ate out every day, sometimes multiple times. I was able to be mindful, and my weight stayed stable, which was my goal.

Michael Hambrick
Michael Hambrick
2 years ago

JD – long-time reader and big fan posting for the first time here. I enjoy all of your posts, but this one really resonated with me because it was the exact scenario that you’re talking about that changed my life forever. At one point a few years ago, I was drinking as much, if not more, as what you’re describing here. It was my after-work routine – come home, go straight to fridge, and drink until bed. It’s just what I did. It was, in your words, my linchpin habit. I’ll spare you the details, but I hit a really… Read more »

Crystal
Crystal
2 years ago

I just did my math. My craft beer habit cost me approximately $3000 last year. Holy cow…………

dh
dh
2 years ago

Great post, JD. Using Tinder on my phone was a linchpin habit for me, and removing that app has improved my life greatly: I’m getting more stuff done, my mind is calmer, I’m improving my social skills now in the real world, etc. Alcohol-wise, I pretty much only have red wine, like maybe four 6 oz servings per week kind of thing. As everyone surely knows by now, red wine is super *healthy* if consumed in moderation. Drinking a glass is like eating a serving of antioxidant-rich fruit. Red wine is one of the cornerstones of the Mediterranean diet, the… Read more »

dh
dh
2 years ago
Reply to  dh

Here’s what I recommend, health in a tiny single-serving bottle:

comment image?downsize=715:*&output-format=auto&output-quality=auto

Kate
Kate
2 years ago

I can completely identify with this linchpin habit change. I was never a suds drinker until a friend got me into it as a hobby to try all kinds of brews. It grew on me, and next thing I knew, I was consuming weekly and sometimes daily to try new flavors. The best thing that happened to me in the last year was finding I had to go gluten-free. I no longer was able to drink any suds (other than discovering GF ones) and the options are quite limited. Prior to suds, I was a wine drinker but that has… Read more »

Joe
Joe
2 years ago

Sorry to hear about the pneumonia. I hope you feel better soon. Take it easy for a few days.
Great job reducing your alcohol intake. Yes, 10 drinks per week sounds like a lot to me. Nowadays, I have one or two per week and that’s plenty. I used to drink a bit more, but it was bad for my triglyceride level.

Doug
Doug
2 years ago

I have a similar problem but it is with diet drinks. I drink several a day and crave them like any other addiction. My late new years resolution is to replace this habit with water.

Beau
Beau
2 years ago

Thanks for the great article!!… Also thank you for not sharing a photo of you playing games on your laptop!! Haha

David Olsen
David Olsen
2 years ago

21 days to make, or break a habit, they say.

good luck.

I am in a “Dry January”. Not bad so far.

Next time I might pick February though as it is only 28 days!

Teress S.
Teress S.
2 years ago

Another great article, JD! One of my New Years goals has been to look for ways to become more efficient in my work and home life… trying to accomplish more in less time with as little effort as possible. My first change was to pack my breakfast and eat it at work, while reading my emails. By doing this, I’m leaving the house 20-25 minutes earlier and arriving at work 30 minutes earlier (fewer school busses on the road at the earlier time). Additionally, I find that sitting to eat at home resulted in some inertia; I have more motivation… Read more »

RH
RH
2 years ago

I have noticed too that it is normally and event versus a psychological wish that can cause a habit change. For example, my friend smoked for years. Then last year Portland has some nasty snow and ice that lingered around which made driving impossible. She was consideration walking 1/2 mile on ice to the nearby market to buy smokes. Common sense kicked in and she realized how crazy it was to risk a fall on the ice and how addicted she must be to have even considered that as an option. That event caused her to quit smoking.

Frieda
Frieda
2 years ago

This is the kind of post that makes me so glad the the real GRS is back. I agree that habits have a cascade effect, for good or for bad. When I exercise, I also eat better, to avoid undoing all my hard work. (On the other hand, beer goes really well with fries and pizza and nachos.) I don’t drink much alcohol, but I found that my afternoon Starbucks run was a sort of linchpin habit. I’d often buy a sweet snack to go along with the coffee. I’d then proceed to waste time on the internet after getting… Read more »

CT
CT
2 years ago

Okay, help me with the math here. You had 22 drinks in 23 days, but 11 of those days were sick days with no alcohol. So really we’re looking at 22 drinks in 12 days, right? That averages to about 1.83 drinks per day, which puts you on pace to hit just over 669 drinks this year, not 350.

It looks like quitting the beer-drinking linchpin habit may not be enough to meet your goal. Either way, it sounds like it’s still progress compared to last year. Keep it up, and good luck!

CT
CT
2 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

Oh, I see – I misunderstood the zero days. I thought your sick days were also the zero days, which I considered dirty data.

Including everything in an average can oftentimes be misleading (I’m an analyst by trade), but it looks like that’s not the case here, so I won’t bore you with the technical stuff.

Again, great job! And thanks for being back!

Travis
Travis
2 years ago

I noticed that having Facebook on my phone and following a bunch of political-themed accounts on Twitter was starting to significantly affect my mood whenever I had some downtime. Without thinking, my phone was out and I was opening FB. I’d log on and scroll for some news and invariably would be shown articles about whatever the internet was outraged about that day. It was mentally exhausting, but I didn’t realize the toll it was taking every day. My linchpin habit was having FB on my phone and mindlessly opening it and endlessly scrolling. One day, I uninstalled FB and… Read more »

shares